Saturday, 31 March 2012

Books I Read In March

'Double Whammy' by Carl Hiaasen
There is something about Hiaasen's books that I do not like but as yet cannot identify.  This story is set among the competition bass fishing community of southern Florida and the scandals and murders involved around the big prize competitions.  After 'Tourist Season' I have learnt the tropes of Hiaasen's work and too many appear in this story too.  There is a former journalist who now works as a private detective.  He has an ex-wife who he is still in contact with and there is an additional woman that the detective sleeps with.  The role of the two women in aiding or hindering the investigator is switched from 'Tourist Season'.  Another ongoing aspect is some muted criticism of the  destruction of the environment of southern Florida, its over-development and the idiotic people this attracts.  As with 'Tourist Season' Hiaasen draws thorough if eccentric characters and has an overly complex plot, as before involving a scene shift, this time as far as Louisiana.  Perhaps it is all simply too American for me, perhaps I feel the attempts at satire or black humour out-dated so incomprehensible or simply just laboured.  Something stops me liking these novels as much as the character portrayal might warrant.

'Disaster At D-Day.  The Germans Defeat The Allies, June 1944' by Peter Tsouras
Tsouras is very capable at writing counter-factual books around wars and their consequences.  This is one of those very detailed books which if you did not know it was not truthful you could read as if it were simply a historical account.  This will not appeal to some details as you have to keep track of numerous companies, platoons, battalions, regiments, brigades, divisions, armies and army groups and numerous individuals on both sides.  Even having cycled through many of the towns and villages mentioned I found it difficult to follow.  In addition, I quickly found it difficult to distinguish where Tsouras's book diverged from what actually happened; a typical complaint against counter-factual novels let alone more historical style books like this.  The main difference seems to be that the landings of US troops at the Omaha beach, i.e. between Pointe du Hoc and Port en Bessin to the western end of Normandy was completely repelled rather than mauled as in our world.  This distorted the front opened up by the Allies and made it shorter.  How other battles between units differ I do not know and I certainly would have welcomed something like a parallel text to show the differences.  This book might be fascinating but it is really only full understandable to someone who knows the history of the D-Day landings and follow-up battles in immense detail.

Another thing that spoilt my enjoyment of the book was a serious publishing error.  The version I have is the D-Day 60th Anniversary Edition.  In my copy and I assume many others, you get pages 1-32 then you get pages 1-32 again; pages 33-74 are missing and so after the second page 32 you jump to page 75.  This means you miss the whole section about the Utah and Omaha landings which leaves you not seeing the greatest divergence from our history.  I bought this book a few years back and it is a shame that I did not check it as I would have sent it back to the publishers, Greenhill Books in London and Stackpole Books in Pennsylvania and demanded a refund.

'The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes.  The Story of George Scovell' by Mark Urban
I bought this book new in 2001 as a spare one to carry in my car in case I found myself in a situation without anything to read.  Having taken two days' leave I had foolishly brought only one book along with me which I finished while watching an hour-long Karate lesson and so turned to this emergency volume.  As the title suggests it is a biography of George Scovell, an officer in the Quartermaster's section of the British Army in the Peninsular War who became an intelligence officer and a cryptographer.  His story shows the hazards of snobbery in the army not least when Lieutenant-General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) refused to meet with the Portuguese Commandant of Braga on the grounds that he felt he was too socially inferior.  This man, a senior Portuguese officer (and Portugal was Britain's ally) had vital information of the routes along which Marshal Soult was escaping from Portugal so letting tens of thousands of French troops escape.

The story is a good coverage of the Peninsular War not always showing Wellington in the best light, though highlighting his French counterparts as a lot worse.  It is interesting in terms of looking at the relationships between different members of the staff on the British side and the relationship between the theatre of war and London.  It is thoroughly supported by a wide range of British and French sources.  As well as engaging descriptions of the battles it is also fascinating in showing how the Grand Paris Cipher was worn down.  All round a well written book which draws you in, in the way the best history particularly for mainstream consumption, always should.

'Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?.  More Puzzles in Classic Fiction' by John Sutherland
This is the sequel to 'Is Heathcliff A Murderer?' produced in 1996.  Like the previous book it looks at issues in classic fiction in a series of short essays that are great for dipping into.  This volume goes back into the 18th century and forward into the 20th century but again primarily focuses on Victorian literature.  Sutherland writes in such a way that even if you are unfamiliar with the original book you can engage quickly with the point he is discussing.  As in 'Is Heathcliff A Murderer?' the essays cover errors in the authors' writing but also things that modern readers will see as errors but were in fact deliberate.  Some errors shown include 'Lemon or Ladle' referencing George Eliot's 'Felix Holt, the Radical' and 'Wanted: Deaf-and-Dumb Dog Feeder' in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Hound of the Baskervilles'.  This highlights the difficulty of keeping consistency in a long narrative in the days before wordprocessors and especially when authors were under pressure to write serials as they went along, with no ability to go back and change what had already been published.

It is clear that often 19th century authors liked to play around with chronology and in particular have contemporary characters operating in a context which preceded their own time, particularly the era of the railways in rural areas of Britain, an example is the chapter 'The Barchester Towers that Never Was'.  The book also highlights aspects of British society we have forgotten such as 'Pug: dog or bitch?' referring to 'Mansfield Park' and 'How Vulgar is Mrs Elton?' from 'Emma' both by Jane Austen.  'How Good a Swimmer is Magwitch' from Charles Dickens's 'Great Expectations' and 'Clarissa's Invisible Taxi' from Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs. Dalloway' remind us not to patronise authors of the past for making mistakes when their perceptions and what was worth mentioning from among them, were shaped by their times, not ours.  I will have to look out for other books on this basis that Sutherland has produced, 'Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?' (1999) and 'Henry V, War Criminal?' (2000).

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